We Choose To Go To The Moon!

Apollo 11 riding a fiery pillar heavenward, on a rendezvous with history, on 16th July 1969.

Apollo 11 riding a fiery pillar heavenward, on a rendezvous with history, on 16th July 1969.

"We choose to go to the Moon! We choose to go to the Moon... We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win..."

President John F Kennedy - Rice University Football Stadium - 12th September 1962

As I write this journal post, exactly fifty years ago to the minute, astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins were in orbit around the Moon, making preparations to leave Collins in orbit aboard ‘Columbia’, the Apollo 11 Command & Service Module, while Armstrong and Aldrin would descend to the lunar surface in ‘Eagle’, the Lunar Module.

Renewed Interest

With the approaching anniversary of this incredible moment in history, a couple of weeks ago I saw the newly released Apollo 11 film. I can’t recommend it highly enough - the pristine restoration of the film footage and the insight in to the very ordinary experiences of spectators prior to launch, evoked almost a sense of time travel. Knowing that this was actual footage of July 1969, watching people wake up in the back of their cars, or sat reading in deck chairs in the dawn air, brought the past alive to me in a way that I hadn’t experienced previously.

Watching preparations at Kennedy Space Center and listening to the retro soundtrack build, my chest felt the impact as the engines of the Saturn V rocket roared in to life, and I sat beaming as my seat shook and the violent beauty played out on the screen in front of me. Three brave men, strapped to the uppermost point of an oversized missile, a tenth of a kilometre long and weighing nearly three thousand tonnes, set off to mark a point that will forever divide history. We used to be a race of beings that had only ever set foot on the world on to which we were born, but if this mission succeeded, that would be forever changed; an achievement above all others, that could never be taken from us.

I think I’ve started to annoy my family with the many documentaries that I’ve watched on the subject of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions in the last few months, as well as the number of films offering insight in to the astronauts themselves. First Man and Armstrong offering dramatised and non-dramatised insight respectively, in to the life and career of the man that was to take the first step on to the surface of the Moon, speaking out those immortalised words on behalf of every other human being that had ever, or would ever live. I can’t help it. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by flight and aviation of all forms - the lunar missions have been the ultimate expression of our capabilities to apply science, engineering and courage, to overcome seemingly absolute limitations.

It’s been a geeky pleasure to drop in and out of the Apollo 50th Twitter account, as it has live tweeted the radio transcripts between the Apollo 11 crew and CAPCOM, as it was happening on a minute-by-minute basis, fifty years previously. The humanity and normalcy is what strikes me most - we can just ride along with them, ghost-riding through time.

Hope Deferred

I was born eight years and two weeks after Eagle touched down at Tranquility Base. I grew up gripped by a fascination of space flight and a hope that I would one day have the opportunity to be part of something as significant, extending the boundaries of our knowledge and experience as human beings. In that respect, I have to live with two disappointments - [1] I’m not (yet) an astronaut, and [2] with greater technology available in each successive year, it sometimes feels as though we’ve done comparatively little to move on from the incredible achievement of the lunar landings, in fifty years.

Of course, a significant factor in this delay must be due to the economics of space exploration; at the height of the Moon missions, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was spending 4% of US GDP and approximately 400,000 people were at work on the space program. The final bill for Apollo was calculated as $153 billion (adjusted to 2018 dollars). I would argue that in 2019 and still emerging from a deep recession, cost / benefit analysis has been an entirely justifiable limiting factor, but apathy and a lack of imagination has also been the cause for pause. With many people around the planet struggling to access food, clean water and a reasonable standard of living, channeling any funds in to space exploration will only receive support, when governments and private contractors can see opportunities for their investments to yield substantial returns.

The missions that have launched in the last several decades, have not been for the sake of travelling higher, further, faster - recent missions have led to deeper understanding of the composition of the bodies within the Solar System, but this in turn sows the seeds for the celestial ‘land rush’ to come, with minerals and resources available to whichever nation, or private contractor that can reach them first.

Perhaps that’s cynical. Although we like to recall the inspirational tone of President Kennedy’s 1962 speech, he was also clear to state that “…there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won…”. SpaceX, BlueOrigin and Virgin Galactic all have their place in the privatisation of space flight and exploration, but my hope would be that this is also in the spirit with which those first brave people left the relative safety of our atmosphere, as they ventured to the inky depths of trans-lunar space.

Despite the hiatus of trans-orbital crewed spaceflight, there are reasons to be excited. In December 2017, forty-five years after the last manned lunar rendezvous, with Apollo 17, NASA received a new remit under Space Policy Directive 1, to take astronauts back to the Moon and to develop a Gateway outpost in lunar orbit, as a staging post for lunar landings and wider manned exploration of the solar system. To achieve this, NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) are working with Lockheed Martin on the development of the Orion Multi-purpose Crew Vehicle; this will be transported along with other payload configurations, by the Space Launch System (SLS). The SLS will produce between 10 - 20% more thrust than the Saturn V series of rockets (up to 4.2 million kg from the SLS, as compared to 3.2million kg from the Saturn V), depending on configuration.

A Twin Sister

All of this will be achieved under the Artemis program. Artemis, the twin sister of Apollo in Greek mythology, represents another ambitious goal - and the next stage in human exploration of our solar system.

The initial aim of the program is to land the first woman and the next man on the lunar south pole region, by 2024. As was clear throughout the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions that led to the lunar landings of Apollo 11, 12 and 14 - 17, public interest and support counts for a great deal in ensuring that funding continues to be allocated towards these endeavours; NASA’s ‘We Are Going’ updates serve to keep the program in the public consciousness. With the developments in technology that we’ve widely enjoyed in the fifty years since Apollo 11, in particular the prevalent availability of pocket sized smart technology, we can be certain of a much deeper level of interaction in not only the development stages of Artemis, but also during the mission stages.

It’s this leap forward in technology that’s reminded me of why the Apollo program has meant so much to me throughout my life; it sets the whole audacious achievement of the Moon landings in incredibly sharp focus. It’s widely understood that the processing power of most recent smartphones is greater than the entire processing power of the computers available to NASA, during the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs. The flight computers onboard the space vehicles at that time were state-of-the-art and even today, are studied with admiration by contemporary computer programmers, because of their simple elegance and reliability, quickly self-recovering in the event of a processing crash.

It’s the crossover with the technology that I use in my work as an architect, that’s served to bring the Apollo missions to life for me. The recent Apollo 11 film allowed me to experience the mission that took place before my birth, but contemporary technology has allowed me to have a much deeper understanding of the associated space vehicles and equipment. In 2015, recognising the importance of the goal, I joined the KickstarterReboot The Suit’ campaign, pledging to contribute to the fund to restore and preserve Neil Armstrong’s space suit (Extravehicular Mobility Unit - EMU). The campaign was successful and the EMU is now on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, in time for the fiftieth anniversary of the first Moon landing. For those of us that couldn’t make it to Washington D.C. for the anniversary, the Smithsonian has commissioned a full 3D scan, resulting in an entire digital replica of Neil Armstrong’s EMU (click the link to see the suit!), which can be explored in many web-browsers.

The Smithsonian also invited Brian Mathews, VP of Technology and Architecture at Autodesk, to bring a team to 3D scan and digitise the Apollo 11 Command Module. The result of this process has been to produce an entire digital replica of Columbia (click the link to see inside the crew capsule!), allowing anyone with a suitable web-browser to view the interior and exterior of the Command Module in a virtual environment, in a previously unparalleled level of detail.

We use Autodesk software, in particular Revit to develop architectural building models at DesignXY. It’s encouraging and inspiring to know that the family of software products that we use, has practical applications beyond architecture, including as we’ve witnessed, the 3D scanning of highly detailed space vehicles. Part of the reason that I enjoy using our design software, is thinking about how to extend the limits of what we’re able to achieve with it – in reality, the limits to what we can achieve as a practice, relate more closely to opportunities and the expectations of our clients, as opposed to limits of our software or our imagination. This is being demonstrated in a practical sense as Foster + Partners, a world renowned architectural practice, have developed their Lunar Habitation concept.

This evening, as I’m going about my business at home in Sheffield, I’ll be reflecting on the incredible journey taken by those intrepid astronauts, fifty years ago. I can’t guarantee that I’ll still be awake at 02:56.15 (GMT) on 21st July 2019, which will mark the moment that we’ve arrived at five decades since that new clock started, in the post-lunar-landing epoch. I unashamedly use the collective, ‘we’, despite the fact that I wasn’t present on the Moon, or back on Earth, or even as a twinkle in the eyes of my then seventeen / eighteen year old parents. The plaque on the base of the Apollo 11 lunar module clearly states, “We came in peace, for all mankind.” That includes you and me. It was for all of us.

Michael Collins reflects on this in the most gracious way, in the Google Doodle that was released a couple of days ago, to commemorate his Apollo 11 flight.

“We were invited to take a tour around the world and I was amazed that everywhere we went, people would say ‘we’, we did it. We… you and me… the inhabitants of this wonderful Earth, ‘we’ did it.”

Michael Collins - Command Module Pilot - Apollo 11


Should there be a permanent human presence in orbit above, as well as on the surface of the Moon? Would you like to go? Would you consider going further, perhaps to Mars? What skills do you think would be needed? Should architecture on the surface of other planets reflect what we have on Earth, or are there new opportunities?

Let us know what you think!